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The city of York is home to a number of characterful pubs. Many have ghost stories attached to them, some are renowned for their historic interiors but the best are notable because they serve the excellent beers made by the York Brewery. Recently we have become really interested in real ales and micro-brewing, partly because there are some excellent tipples being made, and partly because we live near a large hop growing area in Slovenia; since most beers brewed in the UK are made using Slovenian hops, we feel a bit closer to our adopted motherland when we are in the UK drinking a pint of real ale.
Although there are several decent pubs in which to sample the York Brewery's beers, we decided to join a tour of the brewery one Saturday afternoon last autumn. We hadn't booked in advance but I would advise this if you are really keen to see the brewery because the tours seem to be really popular. The price for adults is currently £6 which includes two halves of beer which you can have before or after the tour (or either side if you want to). If you don't drink, or are driving, they will substitute for soft drinks.
The brewery is situated at Toft Green on the edge of the city centre and not far from the main train station. There is parking available outside and there were spaces when we visited on a Saturday but there may not be during the week. You need to go through the door marked 'Brewery Tap' and go up to the first floor where the bar is. It's actually a members only bar but its open to members of the public when taking the tour.
The bar space is really quirky because it's up in the roof. There's a sloping roof which makes it really cosy and the mismatched furniture gives the place plenty of character. Just before or after a tour it does get very crowded and seats are hard to come by.
There are set times for tours though, like ours, I suspect most of them don't start punctually. That said, if you don't arrive in time and the tour is full, you'll have to wait till the next one because there is limited space.
ABOUT THE YORK BREWERY
The brewery opened in 1996 and, although there is a strong regional tradition of brewing, it was the first brewery within the city walls for over forty years. Production quickly increased and in 2008 the brewery was bought by Mitchells Hotels and Inns of Lancashire. However, there's still a 'small local enterprise' feel when you visit the brewery, thanks to the friendliness of the staff and the way business is done here.
Four beers are made year round and then there are the occasional seasonal beers. York Brewery beers are predominantly sold to local pubs but they are also supplied as permanent and guest ales to places nationwide. The beers are handmade using a combination of traditional methods and the latest technology.
TAKING THE TOUR
There is not a great deal of walking to do on this tour but there is a lot of standing and you do need to be able to climb a couple of flights of steps to get to the bar and the viewing gallery. The gallery has been purpose built in order to give a good view of the brewing process which takes place on the ground floor.
Our guide was one of the brewers, a Yorkshire man born and bred with an accent to match; I'm quite accustomed to northern accents but his was very strong and there were a lot of people on the tour for whom English was not the first language. I wouldn't be surprised if the accent and some of the Yorkshire-isms caused some confusion. Our guide also launched into his narration very quickly and it took me a while to work out where we were at with this rapid overview of the brewing process.
Once up to speed I found the tour really interesting with plenty of amusing and entertaining asides about wokring in a brewery and the characters that work in this particular one. In another room we learned about the different types of malt and got to taste some of the different types used at the York Brewery. We also found out what styles of hops are used for the different kinds of ale and I was delighted to find out that at least one variety of hops used comes from Slovenia.
The whole process is covered during the tour, from the raw ingredients through the various stages of brewing and finally to the bottling or the transferring of the beer into barrels to be taken to pubs to be sold. There's just the right level of information and a good sprinkling of surprising facts that keep you entertained. The tour lasts about an hour and it's an hour that passes quickly.
ROLL OUT THE BARREL
When you pay for your tour you are given two vouchers each for your drinks. The York Brewery makes a variety of ale types but it's mainly the lighter, golden ales that I prefer so I gave the ruby coloured Centurion Ghost Ale a miss and plumped for the Guzzler, a golden beer with a distinctive grapefruit aroma and a very crisp and refreshing flavour. I liked it so much I made it my second drink too.
Himself tried the Terrier first; it's a multi award winning premium bitter and you can certainly taste why. It's has a full flavour but it's not overpowering and it has a lovely creamy maltiness. HIs other choice was the Centurion Ghost Ale which was the darkest of those available that day; it takes its name from an incident in which a plumber's apprentice claimed to have seen Roman soldiers marching through the cellar of a York house. This is York Brewery's strongest beer at 5.4% so, chances are, drink enough of them and you'll see Roman soldiers too.
TO TOUR OR NOT TO TOUR
We spent a fun couple of hours at the brewery and really enjoyed the tour. We both know a bit about brewing but we still learned lots more. There were perhaps a few too many people on this tour nd you may find it less busy on weekdays. Although I'd have thought that this wouldn't be of much interest to kids, there were youngsters on the tour and they were either very polite and well behaved or else they actually did find it interesting. There is no charge for under 14s.
It was particularly interesting to taste the malts and find out which beers each type was used in , then get to taste the beers and see the difference the malt types make. It was also good to be able to taste and touch the ingredients rather than just stand and listen.
I'd recommend this to adults who are interested in real ales and who would like to know more about how it's made. There seemed to me to be quite a few chaps who were interested in brewing, accompanied by ladies who were not so interested but that is by no means true of everyone. However, if you're not at all a beer drinker then you'll fnd this attraction of very limited appeal.
York Brewery, 12 Toft Green, York. YO1 6JT
Tours run daily between May and October, and Monday to Saturday from October to the end of April.
For full details or times and prices see http://www.york-brewery.co.uk/the_brewer​y.php
As this is a members only club, visit the Last Drop Inn or the Three Legged Mare in the city centre if you just want to try some of the York Brewery Beers.